North Inlet Estuary
This site's essentially pristine habitat and water qualities mean that changes observed can be interpreted as natural processes. Because of this, scientists are able to compare North Inlet to more developed estuaries and assess impacts associated with human activities. Our studies span the molecular to landscape and the hours to decades scales of investigation.
North Inlet is part of the 16,000-acre Hobcaw Barony. The estuary is strongly dominated by tidal exchanges with the coastal ocean. A relatively small amount of freshwater drains from a naturally forested, nearly 5,000 acre portion of the Hobcaw Barony. Additional freshwater input comes from a larger watershed to the north; a portion of that includes the low density residential communities at DeBordieu and Prince George. All major temperate coastal habitats – tidal salt marsh, creeks, beaches, jetties, maritime forest, swamps, brackish and freshwater marshes, old rice fields, and various upland habitats – are represented on Hobcaw.
More than 1,200 ha of brackish and freshwater marshes, which were formerly cultivated rice fields, border the Winyah Bay (west) side of Hobcaw Barony. Winyah Bay is a brackish water estuary dominated by input from four major rivers – the Waccamaw, Sampit, Black, and Pee Dee – which drain the third largest watershed (approximately 18,000 square miles) on the east coast of the US, a watershed that is impacted by agricultural, municipal and industrial development.
North Inlet has a semidiurnal tide with an average range of 1.4 m, a temperature range of 4°C to 32°C, and salinities that are usually greater than 28 in the major waterways. More than 70% of the estuary is Spartina alterniflora marsh. Shallow ocean habitats are adjacent to North Inlet.
The climate is temperate to subtropical, with a temperature range of -4°C to +36°C. Winter temperatures are highly variable but generally mild. Snow and ice on the high marsh are rare events. Rainfall is about 45 inches (114 cm) per year. Daytime temperatures are usually above 20°C from May through November.
The State of South Carolina has classified that the waters of the North Inlet constitute an outstanding recreational or ecological resource. In 1992, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. North Inlet was named a prime coastal ecosystem and an Experimental Ecological Reserve by the Institute of Ecology and the National Science Foundation. It was also selected as the initial marine-estuarine site in the National Science Foundation's nationwide Long-Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) in 1980.
Other systems, local and throughout the world
The Institute’s researchers and associates also are involved in studies of other systems, locally and throughout the world. Systems near North Inlet present opportunities to study stressed estuaries. These include Winyah Bay and Murrells Inlet. South of Winyah Bay is a large, sparsely developed tidal freshwater system, the Santee River. Other areas on the South Carolina coast where Baruch Institute associated investigators conduct studies include: the swashes in Myrtle Beach, Charleston harbor, and Pritchards Island, near Beaufort, SC. In addition to studies of estuarine and marine systems within South Carolina, Institute researchers conduct research and participate in collaborative projects along the east and Gulf coasts of the US, Europe, Africa, South and Central America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Rim, Asia, and Southeast Asia.